28 Decades Later

6/9/2017 | Postmuslim | Nostalgic | postmuslim

You can make a point of denying it. You can wire yourself up with explosives and wait for an opportune moment to detonate. Or, having emigrated and purposely forgotten your mother tongue, you can call yourself Chuck and pretend you were born with the name. None of that changes anything.

To be a 21st-century Muslim is to be hopelessly homesick. Wistful or murderous, the impulse is part of your life no matter where you are. Because, in a metaphorical but very profound sense, to be Muslim in our times is also to be homeless.

It is to be in the past, where all your historical credentials belong. To look in on the present like a shy interloper. To be Muslim in our times is to be bereft of material power and moral influence, by turns maligned and wept for. Except in the most peripheral and individual ways, it is to be irrelevant to the workings of either capitalism or science — the two forces that have dominated the world for at least three centuries.

And it is to be homeless knowing that once you had a home. Once you were the victor, master if not of others’ then at least of your own destiny. And now you are defeated and subjugated, a liability wherever you go. Even if it hasn’t seen better days, the space you occupy will retain the residue of some former glory. Like Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, it will be β€œa city of ruins and of end-of-empire melancholy” — of hΓΌzΓΌn, as he calls it, using a word derived from the Arabic root for sorrow.

Such hΓΌzΓΌn pervades your life whether or not you identify it for what it is. It infuses your experience with a texture, a colour, a vibration; the scent of perpetual yearning. And so you pine — not for a specific time or place so much as some reliable cultural grounding or collective pride, a positive sense of identity.

Sooner or later you will realise. To be embodied and empowered as a contemporary Muslim, you need to bring the past back into the present.

But that past, your past as a Muslim is an endless trove of meanings in flux. And it is up to you to interpret and incorporate those meanings, choose which ones to stress and which to abandon, then write the code for seamlessly installing them into your daily life. The trick is to remember that said life operates within a mainframe. And that mainframe makes no provisions for incurable nostalgia.

Having acknowledged your historical estrangement, in other words, it is up to you to creatively insinuate yourself into the contemporary world — with a view to reclaiming it.

Otherwise you will end up doing one of two things. You will try and fail to destroy that world, pushing yourself further and further out on the margins. Or you will remain a perennial intruder on the present, forever pining for a country to which you can never emigrate.

Al-Ahram Weekly